For many cancer patients, radiation treatment controls tumor growth, decreases recurrences, and improves survival. Like chemotherapy, though, radiation itself is a cancer risk. As patients live longer after treatment, the possibility of a radiation-induced tumor rises.
At the National Cancer Institute (NCI), researcher Amy Berrington de Gonzalez, PhD, recently analyzed what happened to adult patients in the decade after they reached the five-year survival mark for 15 different types of radiation-treated cancers: About 8 percent of the second cancers that occurred were related to the initial radiation. In absolute numbers, that translates to five extra cancers for every 1,000 patients treated.
While the overall rate was fairly low, greater second-cancer risks were found among those who received higher doses of radiation and those who were younger at initial treatment. Testicular and cervical cancer patients, who tend to be young adults, had higher rates of second cancers attributed to their radiation treatment than prostate and endometrial cancer patients, who tend to be older when treated.
What you can do: Ask your radiologist if she’s doing everything possible to shield your healthy tissue; the more targeted the treatment, the better. Hayden, for example, was treated for her breast cancer in a facedown position with her breast hanging through a special opening, keeping vital organs out of harm’s way. Protective measures are also available for prostate cancer by using 3-D imaging to map the prostate’s location and minimize radiation to surrounding organs.